Ok, so I’ve complained about “Best Practices” before, but I want to revisit the topic and talk about another angle. I think the reason we go astray with “Best Practices” is the name. Best. That’s pretty absolute. How can you argue with that? How can any other way of doing it be better than the “Best” way?
Of course there are always better ways to do things. If we don’t figure them out, our competitors will. We should call these standards Baseline Practices. They represent a process for performing a task with a known performance curve. What we should be telling employees is, “I don’t care what process you use, as long as it performs at least as well as this.” That will encourage innovation. When we find better ways, that new way becomes the new baseline.
In case you haven’t read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and its sequel, Lila, Pirsig describes two forms of quality: static and dynamic. Static quality are the things like procedures, and cultural norms. They are a way that we pass information from generation to generation, or just between peers on the factory floor. Dynamic quality is the creativity that drives change. Together they form a ratchet-like mechanism: dynamic quality moves us from point A to point B, and static quality filters out the B points, throwing out the ones that fall below the baseline.
I’ve heard more than one person say that we need to get everyone doing things the same way, and they use this as an argument in favour of best practices. I think that’s wrong. We have baseline practices to facilitate knowledge sharing. They get new employees up to speed fast. They allow one person to go on vacation while another person fills in for them. They are the safety net. But we always need to encourage people go beyond the baseline. It needs to be stated explicitly: “we know there are better ways of doing this, and it’s your job to figure out what those ways are.”